The dangers of a national curriculum

col-kennardRABBI JAMES KENNARD

IN less than two years, teachers and school students across the country will experience the greatest change ever in teaching in Australia. The next stage of the Rudd’s Government’s “Education Revolution” will see all schools teaching to the same national curriculum from 2011. The curriculum will prescribe the content and required level of achievement for each school year in maths, English, science and history, with other disciplines to be included in subsequent phases.

This dramatic increase in centralisation will transfer control of the curriculum from the states and, in the case of the independent (and Jewish) sector, from the schools themselves to Canberra. And it is intended to achieve much more than continuity for children who switch schools, or move interstate, during their education. It is also designed to ensure Australia has a “world-class curriculum” to “equip our young people with the essential skills, knowledge and capabilities to compete internationally”, explained Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

But education is about more than being able to “compete internationally”. It is one generation’s way of transmitting its values to the next. A curriculum is more than merely knowledge, skills and capabilities. It is also the links that hold those elements of understanding together. These connections, between one part of a child’s learning and another and between one topic and the next, are the tools that enable a student to understand and make sense of the world.

Nowhere is this more critical than in the history curriculum, in which the study of “how one thing led to another”, and how ideas create movement, which in turn create change, is precisely what turns a collection of facts and dates into an understanding of human society and its development. It is therefore particularly significant that the draft version of the year 10 history curriculum, which was presented for consultation last year, contained the following:

“The Holocaust that Hitler and the Nazis inflicted on European Jewry will be studied in its own right. Its enduring consequences will also be considered, including … the establishment of Israel and its effects on Palestinians.” The leadership of the Jewish community had lobbied for the inclusion of the Holocaust in the curriculum. We can only speculate whether this explicit linkage between the destruction of European Jewry and the situation of the Palestinians was included as a counterbalance and a concession to pressure from anti-Zionist groups.

Whatever the origin, the draft version of the curriculum would oblige every year 10 student in Australia to learn that the plight of the Palestinians is a consequence of the Holocaust. This is precisely the position of Hamas and its ilk, who ask why Arabs should “suffer” for the sins of the Europeans. And it is but a short jump to compare Israelis with Nazis, in the style of the play Seven Jewish Children. A strongly argued response from the community, assisted by history teachers in Jewish schools, explained why the linkage was unacceptable on educational and historical grounds. Only when the final curriculum is published will we know if this was successful.

This episode highlights the inherent danger in the creation of a national curriculum. Whereas standardisation and compatibility of teaching across Australia’s schools must be welcome, the Government has handed one of society’s most critical tasks into the hands of a few hand-chosen experts. Each member of the curriculum board may be an authority in their own field and in pedagogy, but does that qualify them to prescribe which ideas are to be taught and in what manner? Experience in other countries with a centrally controlled curriculum demonstrate that politicians themselves are not averse to meddling for their own ideological or political ends, even overruling the very educationalists they appoint. Frequent tinkering with curriculum content and style leaves teachers unfamiliar, on a regular basis, with the material and approach that they are required to teach.

Although the shape of the curriculum is already emerging, it remains to be seen whether there will be a devil in the detail, or in the quantity of detail. We can only hope that the national curriculum will leave sufficient room for the creativity of individual teachers, the ethos of individual schools and the intelligence of individual students to decide issues for themselves, including whether the situation of the Palestinians is a “consequence” of the Holocaust.

Rabbi James Kennard is the principal of Mount Scopus College, Melbourne.